The 5 rules for affecting real culture change
You can have a great philosophy, deliberate strategy, and cunning tactics to inspire customer-driven growth, but if you don't change your culture, they won't work. Changing the culture within your organization is vital if you want to deliver a Customer Experience that fosters customer loyalty and retention.
Culture change is not easy. I was running a workshop with a utility client many years ago about the concept of Customer Experience. There were 20 people in the room, and we were kicking around ideas of what changes could deliver an improved experience. One young lady, much younger than her surrounding co-workers, had an idea, several actually. However, with every one of her suggestions, one of the others would say, "We already did that; it didn't work," implying that it wouldn't work now, either. This cycle happened many times before she gave up. It was clear that changing the culture at this utility was going to be challenging.
It still happens today, too. I was talking to a chief marketing officer (CMO) of a multinational company the other day who wants to change the organization (and believe me, I know this organization; he's right). I started to talk about how people within his organization needed to understand customer emotions and focus on customer-centricity. The CMO stopped me because he knew right away that it wouldn't work for their company. I challenged him on this, explaining that if he took that view, the organization would never change. We will see what he decides.
However, I don't think his situation is unique. We know this process is a challenge. To help prepare you mentally for it, we comprised these five rules for affecting real culture change.
- Create or define a burning platform.
- Recognize this is a long-term goal.
- Be clear on your vision for the future.
- Remember that "you don't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
- Lead from the top.
Let's take a closer look at each of them.
Rule #1: Create or Define a Burning Platform.
Essentially, this first rule is for you to make it clear why the organization should change. If everybody thinks business-as-usual is working, no one will bother to make any changes; it’s too inconvenient and uncomfortable. It's the classic idea that to effect change, one must realize that the pain of change is less than the pain of staying where you are. If you don't believe me, consider the fate of these previously successful brands: Circuit City, Sears, Blockbuster, Kodak, and probably soon, J.C. Penney. Moreover, with the pandemic and the recession and everything else that will follow looming, we could see some more big brands take a fall. However, if these former brands had a more customer-centric culture, they would probably be here today because they realized that the market is moving on and appropriately adjusted.
To illustrate what I mean, consider how diets work (or don't work, as the case may be). Weight loss is a common goal for many people, but they often fail to do so over and over again. However, some people succeed. The difference between those that fail and those who lose weight is that people who lose weight have the goal of losing weight for a specific event, e.g., a wedding or class reunion. The special event is the burning platform, which creates a sense of urgency.
I have talked about Loss Aversion before, and one of its implications is that when you are in a gain frame, which is what most companies are in most of the time, you tend to be risk-averse, meaning you don't want to change. However, when you get into a loss frame (aka, there is a platform on fire and it threatens to burn the whole enterprise down), your risk preferences flip, and you become more risk-seeking. In other words, you are more willing to take a chance because you can see that the status quo threatens to destroy your success.
Rule #2: Recognize that this is a long-term goal.
I've been in many organizations where people want to make a culture change in the next six months. In my experience, it takes a lot longer than that. You may be able to start it in six months, and even make progress, but you will still have a way to go. Cultural changes usually range from three to five years.
If you think you will achieve culture change in six months, my advice would be don't even try it. You're not going to see it through to completion in six months.
Rule #3: Be clear about your vision of the future.
Your articulation of the vision, the philosophy, is vital. However, it is equally crucial that you know what you want it to do. Break it down into all the new things you want to do and all of the old stuff you want to stop. Also, include how you want to measure it.
In my early career in corporate life, the philosophy flavor of the month at that particular time was Total Quality Management. I was with a big corporate telecom at the time, and we went on a training course for Total Quality Management. One of the remarkable things that came out of the training was the idea that you should have a plan and objective for every meeting. It would be best if you also articulated those things beforehand, estimate the time needed for the meeting, and then stick to it. What I like about these concepts is that these are solid, definable things you can do. Moreover, if you don't do it, it is obvious you aren't doing it. This level of clarity for your vision will help you achieve the same.
The culture of your organization reflects on the experience your customers have. For example, we were working with an airline that wanted to improve their experience. We discovered in getting to know their culture that internally, they referred to passengers as "self-loading freight." In essence, this alone tells you everything you need to know about this airline. As we worked with the airline to develop a Customer Experience Statement, which defines the experience they wanted to deliver, the airline wanted to improve punctuality. However, we explained that being late was a company culture for them; they had been late to every meeting we ever had with them. While starting meetings on time has nothing to do with how quickly planes are loaded and unloaded, being late to meetings can send a powerful cultural signal within an organization that being late is acceptable.
The ability to articulate what you want people to do and what you don't want people to do is essential here. You want to make these actions definite and measurable, too, so it's obvious when somebody is doing it—or not doing it.
Another cultural signal I always like to check is where Customer Experience falls on the meeting agenda. If it is at the end, then that tells me a lot. What you put at the end of the list is rarely the number one priority. If you always do customer metrics last, it sends a subtle message to everyone in attendance that it is not that essential to the organization or not as critical as all the other items on the list.
Rule #4: Remember that "you don't make an omlette without breaking eggs."
The reality of culture changes is that they are tough, and some people will not want to go on the journey. You will encounter resistance to your plan, and it won't always be forthright. Ultimately, you might have to sack individuals that aren't on board with your planned cultural change.
The last corporate organization I worked at was implementing a change program involving six sectors. One sector was not on board. The guy running even placed a bet that the change program wouldn't work. It should come as no surprise that when it was time to go live, their sector wasn't ready because that senior person convinced everybody that it wouldn't work.
If you consider the teachings from Sun Tzu's The Art of War, you have to choose your battles. You can't win every battle, so you need to select the crucial ones. From a business perspective, that can mean breaking a few eggs to make your Customer Experience omelet. In other words, you might have to fire someone who isn't on board, particularly if that person is a high-profile, senior person. If you remove them, that sends a signal that you're serious about your program for change. I wouldn't fire people just as a matter of course, but if they're undermining what you're doing, you do have to get rid of them. Which leads me to…
Rule #5: Lead from the top.
Good leadership provides an excellent employee experience and the employee experience you provide is essential. In fact, my book, Happy Employees Make Happy Customers explains in great detail how this works. Regarding culture, one of the points I make in the book is that people often stay in jobs because of great managers, and leave because of poor ones.
Your words and actions have to be the same. If you want to make that cultural change, you have to live it and demonstrate to people that you live it, even when (and particularly when) it's causing you some pain. Principles are great, but they mean nothing unless you sacrifice something for them. Make sure that you're doing what you're asking your teams to do.
A vital part of that is to look at your schedule. If you say the organization needs to be more customer-centric and spend more time with customers, look at your schedule and see where you're doing that. Otherwise, your words ring hollow to those who follow you. It goes back to the importance of these subtle signals. If you say one thing and do another, it undermines that culture change.
The first call center I managed many years ago had 550 people in Bristol, England. The call center was in one building, but their manager before me had his office in another building entirely. The effect was that the team never saw their manager in person at all. There were offices at the call center building; he just wasn't in them.
When I took over, I wanted to make the point about being accessible. I would j sit out on the floor with everybody else. From a cultural perspective, I was saying I was equal to everybody else. Moreover, I stayed as long as the call center was open. I wanted to make myself available to the team and these tactics were my way of sending that signal to people. In a way, the most essential signal we can send is how we use our own time.
These five rules can help you in your efforts to effect change at your organization. By creating urgency with a burning platform, you prioritize the need for change. Then, working with the long-term in mind, you can present a clear vision for the culture you envision for your organization and work out what you should (and shouldn't) do in that new environment. Recognize there could be some battles, and maybe some people you need to move on because they're not going to be part of the new culture. Perhaps most importantly, you must match your words and actions because the little things matter and will resound around the organization.
Colin is Founder & CEO of Beyond Philosophy LLC who help organizations grow by improving their Customer Experience and identifying hidden unmet needs. As a result, the Financial Times selected Beyond Philosophy LLC, as one of the best management consultancies for the last two years.
- Colin is recognized by LinkedIn as one of the ‘ ...